I've often written about the culture clash that exists when you are the child of immigrant parents, born and raised in New York City. It plays out in a number of ways over your lifetime. For example, while your American friends are playing Little League on Saturday, you are participating in your Greek school play that depicts the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in 1821. You spend one night a year following a priest and the tomb of Jesus Christ around your neighborhood, at midnight, with 1000 other Orthodox churchgoers. Your childhood home in Queens, NY looks identical to every other home on the block except for the giant Greek flag hanging above the front door, and hog-tied lamb roasting on the front lawn.
The biggest divergence of culture however has nothing to do with holidays or traditions. It has to do with how Greek parents reprimand their children.
Let's not sugarcoat it. Greek parents discipline their children in three ways and three ways only: through fear tactics, threats, and the use of exaggerated superstitions.
Never has this been more clear to me than when I was in my neighborhood supermarket a few weeks ago watching a 7-year-old have a meltdown in the checkout line. This youngster (we'll call him Lucifer) had just clotheslined a rack of gum and Tic Tacs, and thrown a supersized bag of gluten-free chips at a family in the back of the line. His mother reacted by slowly placing down her chai latte and getting down to eye level with Lucifer. I was half expecting her to take the kid by the throat. I was wrong. She simply asked him what was wrong, counted backwards from 10 (twice), and then handed him an iPad.
Perplexing. Fascinating. Bonkers.
Where were the threats of deadly force? Or of calling the child's father...or the police? So many parents used the "the police are coming" line, that it took years for me to figure out that the police were employed by the city of New York and not by my parents. (It took even longer to realize that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit likely weren't watching my every move on a portable television transmitted directly from my house to heaven.)
If there was anything parents loved more than grandiose threats of divine disciplinary intervention, it was the use of outrageously violent expressions. If your parents were born in Greece and are over 50 years of age, then there is a 100 percent chance that a public meltdown of that caliber would have warranted one of the following verbal responses from them:
"Tha se sfakso!"
"Tha se skotoso!"
"Tha se pnikso!"
"Tha se psiso!"
"Tha sou vyalo ta malia!"
Rough translation? I will butcher you, kill you, drown you, bake you in the oven, and pull your hair out.
Before you go and call Child Protective Services, understand that these are considered completely normal and socially acceptable expressions in the Greek language. In fact, I would argue that it's neither the threat of the police nor being baked in a convection oven that evokes the most fear in Greek children; it's not the wooden spoon or sandal either. It's the death stare of a Greek mother -- or what I like to call, the Voldemort of punishments. If you conjured the death stare, you know you had crossed a serious line, like laughing in church or not getting up to kiss your great aunt when she walked in for Thanksgiving. The eyes would squint but bulge at the same time, and the lasers that shot at you, were both icy and red hot at the same time. Without words you had just been mortal kombatted.
The good news is that all of these parents one day transform into the sweetest, most affectionate, mild-mannered grandparents, who then undermine your authority and let your children get away with murder. The transformation is unbelievable. The main characters in the Greek tragedy that was your childhood are suddenly Pope Francis and Mother Theresa.
And as for you? Well, someone has to carry on the family legacy.
And you've just been handed the throne.